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Elected Vancouver park board was a product of 19th-century colonialism, but does that justify its abolition?

Niki Sharma
Attorney General Niki Sharma was once chair of the Vancouver park board.

Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting with a former journalism school classmate at the media table at a Vancouver park board meeting. At the time, one of our J-school friends, Allan Dow, was overseas covering the Irish peace accord. That was one of the biggest news stories in the world.

We both marvelled at how Dow’s career had rocketed forward. But I recall telling my former classmate, Mike Clarke, that I was actually happy to report on the park board. He was, too.

Those were fun times. There was no shortage of colourful characters serving on the park board in the 1990s. The chair from 1991 to 1993, the recently deceased Nancy Chiavario, stood out as a thoroughly decent politician. Two other commissioners in those days, Tim Louis and Dermot Foley, were exceptionally intelligent and financially literate left wingers.

The subsequent board from 1993 to 1996 had a fiery teacher, Donna Morgan, along with Louis in COPE. The NPA ranks included the intelligent middle-of-the-roader David Chesman, the energetic and community-minded Allan DeGenova, and a bright up-and-comer named Duncan Wilson.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, one of the park board’s hottest issues was whether whales and dolphins should be kept in captivity in Stanley Park. Things became even more heated after animal-rights activist Roslyn Cassels was elected in 1999 as the first Green Party commissioner.

The board addressed many other topics democratically. These included the future of the Bloedel Conservatory, leasing park land to commercial operators, and allowing concerts in Stanley Park. Moreover, commissioners approved a long-term strategy for swimming pools and water parks. And they agreed to conduct a colonial audit to reveal how the board had trampled over the legal rights of Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh people.

Park
One of Vancouver’s most influential politicians, Grace McCarthy, was first elected to the park board. Photo by C.H.I.L.D. Foundation.

Park board launched political careers

The previous COPE-Green park board majority from 2014 to 2018 likely saved lives by fighting the eviction of tent-city dwellers from parks. They repeatedly demanded that the city and province offer housing alternatives.

Over the years, I saw many political neophytes find their footing as a park commissioner. It was the perfect training ground for politics because there was lots of contact with the public. These politicians’ dealings with media were rarely scripted.

Spencer Chandra Herbert, Suzanne Anton, Heather Deal, Melissa DeGenova, and Sarah Kirby-Yung all smoothly transitioned to higher elected offices with the help of their park board experience. So did some of their predecessors, including long-time councillors George Puil and Libby Davies, former deputy premier Grace McCarthy, and former mayor Philip Owen. Others, like Constance Barnes, didn’t succeed when they tried to graduate to the political big leagues. But they still left a legacy from their time in politics. In Barnes’s case, it included the railing along the sidewalk in the Stanley Park Causeway, creating a barrier between cyclists and motor vehicles.

Other former commissioners didn’t get elected to council—such as Stuart Mackinnon, Catherine Evans, and John Irwin—even though they had shown their devotion to pubic service on the park board. As far as I could tell, they never looked at decision-making through the lens of climbing a political ladder.

One former park board chair, Niki Sharma, is now B.C.’s attorney general. In her term on park board from 2011 to 2014, Sharma distinguished herself by having the courage, along with her colleagues, to vote to end the breeding of whales and dolphins in captivity in Stanley Park. In 2017, commissioners banned the importation of cetaceans into the park.

Vancouver park board by Luke Shwart
From this small building, the Vancouver park board oversees a vast array of parks, community centres, and beaches. Photo by Luke Shwart.

Taking fun out of political reporting

Now, the NDP provincial government will likely amend the Vancouver Charter to abolish the city’s elected park board. In a twist of fate, Sharma is official legal adviser to the cabinet under the Attorney General Act.

It’s sad knowing that Vancouver parks, community centres, and public swimming pools won’t receive as much public attention in the future. From a selfish perspective, I can declare that this move will take a lot of the fun out of political reporting in Vancouver.

Nevertheless, there may be upsides from this democracy-crushing episode. Perhaps finally, part of the Langara Golf Course can be repurposed for housing and to allow for the expansion of Langara College. An elected park board would never give up any property without a fight.

Let’s look at this realistically. Who really believes that this huge area beside a $2-billion rapid-transit line should be exclusively reserved for folks who chase little balls around a field? Why not provide housing and relatively affordable post-secondary education?

Another upside would occur if the elimination of the elected board coincided with offering justice to the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people. After all, their traditional territory was stolen and their place names were erased as part of the colonial enterprise.

Chief August Jack Khahtsahlano of the Squamish First Nation was born in 1877 in a village in what’s now called Stanley Park. That was nine years before the City of Vancouver was incorporated. In reality, 19th-century colonialism created the park board. Elites sat around a table deciding which spaces would be set aside for their enjoyment.

Ultimately, that led to the eviction of Indigenous people in Stanley Park.

Squamish Chief August Jack Khatsahlano was born in what’s now Stanley Park. Vancouver Archives photo.

No seats at the table for First Nations

The park board kept its round table into the 21st century. As a result, one or two commissioners would speak with their backs to the people in the gallery. I always felt that this round-table arrangement was a symbol colonial arrogance. It wasn’t public-facing.

Throughout the park board’s history, there was never an attempt to offer seats at this round table to Indigenous people. In New Zealand, on the other hand, there have been Maori seats in Parliament since the 19th century. Taiwan also set aside seats in its national legislature for Indigenous representatives.

Nothing like this ever occurred with the elected Vancouver park board. And now, it’s going to be abolished.

Who among us would prefer a democratically elected board that offers authentic decision-making power to the three host First Nations by inviting them to the table? Wouldn’t it be something if municipal and provincial politicians agreed that these First Nations deserve a majority on an elected park board for the first time in history? I bet First Nations politicians would be leaders in addressing tent-city encampments with compassion and forbearance, given the disproportionate number of homeless people who are Indigenous.

Sadly, this seems to be beyond the imagination of those who want to centralize power in pursuit of improving the bottom line. Unless, of course, the provincial government has a surprise planned when it gets around to amending the Vancouver Charter.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.